Capitalizing on the human network

[Editor’s note: Social media — Do nonprofits get it? What do you think?]

Dow Bauknigh

Question: What are a few ways for small nonprofits to take advantage of social media and social networking?

Answer (Dow): Learn the lingo and test the landscape.

The first thing a small nonprofit can do is begin to understand what the terms “social media” and “social networking” on the internet mean.  This is a rapidly evolving space, and even the big nonprofits are trying to understand it.

Wikipedia offers a good working definition: “Social media describes the online technologies and practices that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives.”

Q: What are some examples of social media?

A (Chris): You see examples of social media in things like YouTube, MySpace, Flickr, Planypus and Facebook.

Q: How might small nonprofits begin to learn social media benefits?

A: (Chris): Join some of these sites and see how they work.  Work from within from your own skills.

If you have someone within your organization or a volunteer who has grown up using these technologies, consider having them add some comments on their own MySpace page about your organization and begin building a social network that way.

(Dow): Before a nonprofit jumps right into building an elaborate fundraising site, it would be fairly easy to use social media to see if there is a community out there that is interested in what you’re doing and will respond to a fundraising effort.

(Chris): Pick a topic or event about the organization that is exciting.

There are a lot of tools out there for event fundraising and friend-to-friend fundraising.

(Dow): For example, Planypus supports groups in their decision-making and planning, allowing members to make plans as a group.  You could let a group of young volunteers use that social-media tool to plan an impromptu fundraiser.

(Chris): Rather than dictating the details, let them use these tools.  It’s interactive, close to real time and allows an event to be spontaneous.

If that’s how young people expect to plan their time, and you’re not participating in that space, you’re not going to connect with them.  And 20 years from now, you won’t have the donors you need.

(Dow): So, jump in and give it a whirl.

Q: Messaging and content on traditional websites are very important and entities spend a lot of time polishing it to get it exactly right.  How does messaging and content work in the social-media world?

A: (Dow):  These new social-media tools don’t diminish the need for strong messaging and good content.

(Chris): The difference is that some of that content is now framed by the community rather than by a single person in the organization, say, the person in charge of marketing or fundraising.

(Dow): There are some good things about that.  The public can help you spread your message more quickly, and to new audiences, for example.

But there are downsides, too, in that the message can be diluted or taken in the wrong direction.

(Chris): One way of looking at social media is that it’s a practice where people share information online on a website, rather than through pushing it back and forth via email.  So it’s a mind shift in how we communicate.

(Dow): Because it resides out there in the public realm, it’s a dialogue where all participants willingly join in and take the initiative to participate.

But where the community participates, the community also should be given the control.  They should be able to flag someone’s comments as abusive and should be allowed to kick people off. The community should own the content and set a community standard.

Q: How does an entity maintain momentum using social media?

A: (Dow): Keep the site fresh.  In order for the community to form, stay invigorated and grow, a social-media space has to have a lot of energy and ideas to keep the community stirred up, involved and contributing their ideas.

(Chris): Any space on the internet is competing for people’s discretionary time.  A static page out here doesn’t get anybody very far.  For a website to keep people’s interest, you have to work at it to bring them back and keep them involved.

(Dow): It’s an interconnected world and it changes constantly.  People want their information now and they want to add to it, and the information changes by the minute.

Communication used to be slow and asynchronous.  Now you put something out there and you’ll have 10 opinions immediately. Communication on the internet is moving toward real time.

Q: What does social media replace?

A: (Dow): Writing with charcoal on the back of a shovel.

(Chris:)  Seriously, think of it as one tool in your toolbox.  It should become a primary communication vehicle for certain strata of your general audience.

Q: What closing thoughts do you have?

A: (Chris): One of the things that has gotten small nonprofits interested in social media is the fundraising success some presidential candidates have realized using social media as a fundraising tool.

They believe that because social media is free and accesses millions of people, it ought to be a no-brainer for making a lot of money.

(Dow): But that fails to recognize all the things that surround successful social-media efforts, like platforms, related advertising and newspaper articles.

Now that the social-media framework is legitimized for fundraising, these other elements act as attractors and people start participating.

If we forget to acknowledge all this other stuff, like the media attention, then we’ve missed a big component of what makes social-media-based fundraising campaigns successful.

Dow Bauknight is the executive director of NPower Charlotte Region, a North Carolina-based nonprofit technology consulting firm that serves the nonprofit sector.

Chris Meade is the organization’s chief operating officer.

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